In early January, I contracted the virus that causes COVID-19. My symptoms were mild, but my mental health became a greater battle than my physical health.
My positive test made me feel embarrassed. I suddenly became aware that the language people use to talk about COVID-19 is emotionally charged and points fingers.
That feeling of embarrassment and vulnerability kept me from talking about both my status and my feelings about it. After finally asking around, I found I wasn’t the only one struggling with shame.
I wondered: How is COVID-19 shaming impacting people’s mental health? Are there any tools we could use to overcome the communication challenges caused by these interactions?
Erica Commisso, a 27-year-old writer, also contracted the virus (SARS-CoV-2) that causes COVID-19. She says she felt anxious as soon as she received the test results.
These feelings increased after her roommate learned the news and told her, “I don’t want you here. I feel unsafe.”
“It was a very overwhelming thing,” says Commisso about her particular experience. “I think the mental piece of COVID-19 was way worse than the physical piece.”
But, where does this tendency to judge a health outcome come from?
Luna Dolezal, an associate professor in philosophy and medical humanities at the University of Exeter, studies this very topic.
“A lot of my research centers around shame and negative self-conscious emotions. They’re significant in psychology, philosophy, and other disciplines because shame is seen as the emotion that awakens self-awareness,” she explains. “It’s the emotion where you feel seen and judged by another. And then you kind of, through that judgment, see yourself.”
Dolezal is leading a 2021 research project called Scenes of Shame and Stigma in COVID-19. The project aims to investigate — through philosophical, cultural, and historical perspectives — how shaming and stigma played a role during the first 12 months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
They’re looking mainly at two factors: The individualistic nature of our society and uneven distribution of social power, and the influence of digital technologies, neoliberal ideologies, and social media on how we assume our health outcomes.
Danielle Jones, an OB-GYN and social media personality, got a positive test result a few months ago. She had experienced COVID-19 symptoms while staying at home with her husband and four kids.
After a few days, they were all positive for COVID-19.
Jones waited a few months to talk about her experience publicly. However, she was still criticized about it when she did.
After posting the story on Instagram, Jones says she received comments such as, “This is so irresponsible!” and “I can’t believe that you would expose your kids.”
Dealing with these reactions was overwhelming to her.
“People were just really, really mean. I had to turn off comments on the post,” she recalls.
But it may not only be about how you feel. These reactions could also influence how we behave.
Dolezal says that when we stigmatize a positive test, people are less willing to expose themselves and get tested. Shame lands differently on different people.
People who are part of marginalized groups, who are trauma survivors, or experience other structural and systemic disadvantages, might already be used to feeling shame, explains Dolezal.
She says there’s evidence that shaming those who already experience these challenges might affect them much more negatively. It can lead them to develop symptoms of depression, social withdrawal, or suicidal thoughts.
Shame can be really negative and damaging. It may even play a part in the
For some people, shame can lead to positive changes. Someone may be shamed for smoking, for example, and it encourages them to quit.
“But there’s evidence that that only applies to people who already have robust self-esteem,” says Dolezal. “I think because we never know how shame is going to land on someone… it’s never effective as a way to motivate people to make, what you think, are positive changes. It usually just creates more divisiveness.”
Rishi Mahesh, a 21-year-old comedian and Northwestern University senior, also had a positive COVID-19 test. He says he contracted the virus from his sister.
“I remember when I got COVID-19, a big part of my question was, ‘What am I going to do? Am I going to be very quiet about this? Or am I going to be, like, so loud about it?’” says Mahesh. “I’ve seen the judgment that happens, and how people talk, like ‘Oh, my God, where were they? What were they doing?’”
This type of judgment is what might make you feel guilty. That guilt can leave you unsure of how to approach the conversation with others, particularly those you exposed.
“There’s a lot of judgment [now] because I think a lot of people don’t understand that [COVID-19 isn’t] a cookie-cutter thing. Especially now, since we have more lenient protocols,” says Kristin Book, a psychiatric nurse practitioner who works primarily with adults and adolescents.
“Boundaries are the way people communicate one’s limitations to keep themselves safe and healthy,” Book recently wrote in an article on boundaries and communication during the COVID-19 pandemic. “For many people, establishing boundaries is challenging. Establishing boundaries during a pandemic with social, political, and emotional upheaval can be even more distressful.”
But establishing these boundaries and communicating in specific ways can prevent the impact that shame has on our mental health.
What is an appropriate response to being exposed to COVID-19?
Book recommends you express yourself without judgment or other emotions that insinuate the person maliciously exposed you. Then, move straight to the solution.
Living in a pandemic, we all feel a heightened sense of vulnerability because we could get sick. This atmosphere of vulnerability creates a sense of insecurity — but that’s not any one person’s fault.
If you’re angry, Book advises considering some resources that may help you process that emotion. For example, online therapy, exercise, or FaceTiming friends.
Avoid talking about those who have the disease and take care of yourself in your own space.
What should I tell someone who I potentially exposed?
When you tell someone you tested positive for COVID-19, you don’t necessarily need to tell them where you were or what you did, says Book.
She recommends you give as much information as you feel comfortable with. For example, “I was out at a party. And I think that this person came to me and said they had COVID-19. I got tested and now I’m positive for COVID-19. I was around you last night and we weren’t masked.”
That way you’re informing them but leaving any decisions up to them.
Do I have to apologize for exposing someone to COVID-19?
You can’t “catch” or “give” the coronavirus, particularly if you’re asymptomatic and unaware you have it.
Dolezal says we’re not responsible for getting a cold, and it’s not our fault if we get one.
Once you ask for an apology from someone who’s positive, Dolezal says you’re blaming them for being sick. That seems problematic, she adds.
You wouldn’t blame someone for having a disability.
You don’t owe anyone an explanation, says Book. You can let them know you were in contact with someone who had COVID-19 or that you’ve received a positive test.
But sometimes you won’t know.
The only time a person would need to apologize is if they knowingly exposed you to COVID-19.
One thing that can help conversations around COVID-19 is careful language to describe the situation.
Talking about your feelings may also help you process them better.
Dolezal says that shame thrives in secrecy. As soon as it’s let out, the burden of it can feel much less.
Since COVID-19 is an infectious disease, these feelings of shame may be more intense. You may be worried about spreading it to others and harming them, for example.
Meditation and practicing stillness may be especially helpful during these times.
The ways we discuss our COVID-19 status are often filled with judgment and fear. But shame can be very damaging. It can lead people to keep their status secret or develop depression symptoms.
Talking about COVID-19 may lead to emotionally charged conversations. But you don’t have to feel guilty.
If we can all learn how to discuss this reality in a kind way, we can work on creating a stronger sense of community, security, and belonging.
This is especially important when you may be physically separated from people.
“I think there are ways to make people recognize they made mistakes without having to keep shame on them so that they feel they’re a bad person,” says Dolezal.
Debbie-Marie Brown is a Master’s in Journalism student at the Medill School. They also spent their undergrad at Northwestern, where they focused on multimedia journalism and African-American Studies. Debbie-Marie is originally from New Britain, Connecticut.